Tuesday, December 10, 2013
If ‘V/H/S’ had been made in 1988, and you’d rented it from a video store (y’know, back in the day when you walked or drove to your nearest video store and rented a movie on a big clunky VHS tape), it would have been the. Best. Horror. Movie. Ever.
But it was made in 2012, I saw it on DVD and it isn’t. In fact, it’s pretty appalling. It’s often shoddy in execution, routinely misogynistic in content, and most of its characters are venal, vulgar and thoroughly unlikeable. But, hey, it’s the Winter of Discontent here on The Agitation of the Mind, so let’s give this motherfucker its day in court.
‘V/H/S’ is a portmanteau film consisting of a framing device and five short films. The framing device is intriguing in concept but lousy in execution. Three douchebags who molest women and film their escapades for sale to a “reality porn channel” (why they aren’t in jail since they point the camera at each others’ faces almost constantly is never explained) are hired by some random third party to break into an old house and retrieve a video tape. We’ve seen them break into an empty property already and their modus operandi is smash things up, spray graffiti and say “dude” and “fuck” a lot. Their behaviour evinces no real improvement on the professionalism front when they undertake the job. They find a dead guy in front of a bank of TV screens in an upstairs room and a fuckton of VHS tapes in the basement. Instead of bagging up the tapes en masse and getting the fuck out of Dodge, they spend an inordinate amount of time alternatively exploring the basement (which seems to be occupied by a possibly spectral figure) and watching some of the tapes. Their explorations take the form of jerky handheld camcorder footage that keeps pausing or cutting out. Imagine watching an episode of ‘NYPD Blue’ shot on the cheapest camcorder known to mankind and played back on a video recorder whose tape heads have been coated in treacle and you’re halfway there. Five minutes and it becomes almost unwatchable.
And it’s no great relief when the first short film kicks in. Here’s the plot: three frat boy douchebags outfit a pair of spectacles belonging to the myopic member of their party with a pin-camera, and set out to find a girl or girls to bring back to their motel room with the intent of selling the resulting orgiastic footage to a … oh, great; repetition sets in already. As well as the first of many inconsistencies. Notwithstanding that there’s a flaw to every found-footage horror movie I’ve ever seen – let’s call it Just Put The Fucking Camera Down And Run You Moron Syndrome – there is no sense whatsoever in their ludicrously elaborate plan … when they could easily have secreted a camcorder somewhere in the motel room and set it to motion-detect recording. And had they done so, ‘Amateur Night’ – such is this segment titled – would have been about two minutes long and saved me a headache. If anything, the camerawork is shakier and more blurred than in the framing story. The protagonists are just as big a trio of tossers. Attitudes towards women are equally appalling. There is, however, a comeuppance once they’ve lured two girls back to the room, and the last few minutes work reasonably well … until a lurch into outright fantasy renders the whole thing utterly stupid, not least because the production had nowhere near the kind of budget required to make the pay-off work.
There follows another five minutes of the Original Douchebags back at the old house, then we’re on to ‘Second Honeymoon’, directed by Ti West, and thank God we’re in the hands of a director who can actually bother to frame a shot let alone deal in establishing characters and developing a slow-burn sense of tension. Married couple Sam (Joe Swanberg) and Stephanie (Sophia Takal) are taking an on-a-budget road trip across America; a second honeymoon it may be, but their interactions make it clear that their marriage is running out of steam. West plays this out against a dusty series of drab locations, mainly tourist spots that are starved for tourists. The big creepy scene is reserved for a motel room that makes the place in ‘Vacancy’ look like the Hilton, and while it’s swiftly revealed as a variation on an old urban legend, West pitches it perfectly. The whole thing pays off in a twist ending that practically begs for the ‘Tales of the Unexpected’ theme music, and never quite justifies the amount of time spent building up to it. Nonetheless, it represents a trade up in quality which carries over, to greater or lesser degrees, through the remaining sections.
Glenn McQuaid’s ‘Tuesday the 17th’ is a nifty little subversion of the camping trip/slasher scenario. Here we have college pals Joey (Drew Moerlein), Spider (Jason Yachanin) and Samantha (Jeannine Yoder) heading into the woods with their new friend Wendy (Norma C Quinones). Wendy acts kind of weird from the start, almost casually mentioning how a group of her mates met their gruesome ends out in the wilds the previous year. Joey et al assume she’s joking … that is until something starts decimating their already finite numbers. The nature of said something is McQuaid’s stroke of genius. Every time the killer shows up, the video footage is distorted by what seems to be a tracking error. The distortions are timed so perfectly that you’ll find yourself rewinding in the hope you can actually catch a glimpse of the fiend – be it human, animal or otherworldly – on a second viewing. Everything about this segment unsettles, from the occasional pans to animal corpses (or at least we assume they’re animal corpses) during Wendy’s monologues, to the strange manner in which Wendy conducts herself, to the ultimate revelation of why Wendy hooked up with them, to the brutally inevitable finale. ‘Tuesday the 17th’ is the film’s high point, and even if the final two stories don’t measure up to it, at least neither of them plumb the depths of the framing story or ‘Amateur Night’.
Douchebag reprise, more yawnsome wankerishness, then Joe Swanberg’s ‘The Sick Thing that Happened to Emily When She was Younger’ comes along and epitomises the best and the worst of ‘V/H/S’. The best in that, like ‘Tuesday the 17th’, it embraces the format rather than being restricted by it. Playing out as a series of skype conversations between Emily (Helen Rodgers) and her med student boyfriend James (Daniel Kaufman), the story moves through sexual power games and body horror before paying off in a ‘Twilight Zone’ style lurch into outright sci-fi. The worst in that it relentlessly objectifies women, and trades logic for cheap scares. The least of its crimes against the suspension of disbelief is how come a skype conversation ended up being recorded on VHS, particularly when (a) James assures Emily that he’s not downloading any of their sessions and (b) is later shown to have bloody good reason not to. ‘TSTtHtEWSwY’ is ultimately a nifty concept that wasn’t thought through to any real degree, and would probably have been abandoned had any real critical scrutiny been given to the difficulties of realising it convincingly.
‘10/31/98’, directed by the collective known as Radio Silence, starts well and effectively sidesteps the VHS-in-the-digital-age problem that dogs most of the stories. As the title suggests, we have a home video shot 15 years ago. Such a simple work-around that it’s almost inexplicable that none of the other contributions opted for it. It’s Halloween and a bunch of twenty-something drinking buds get kitted out in fancy dress and head off to the wrong side of town where a happening party is, well, happening. Only they get the wrong address and discover a human sacrifice in progress. Once they adapt to the fact that what’s happening isn’t, as they initially assume, a particularly elaborate Halloween tableau, they intervene and rescue the young woman who’s about to be offed. But before you can say “oh, thank Gawd for that, finally an antidote to all the misogyny”, it turns out that she’s genuinely possessed and an instrument of Satan and the mean lookin’ dudes who were about to fuck her shit up good were actually doing the Lord’s work and everything goes to hell in a sequence of fairly impressive special effects for such a low budget but you know what fuck the special effects because ‘10/31/98’ is little more than a re-emphasis of the woman-hating that ‘V/H/S’ grooves on.
‘V/H/S’ has three segments you can make a case for as genuinely worthwhile. The other two are flawed at best. The framing device reeks. Conceptually, there’s a lot going on – or at least a lot that could have been done with the concept. As it is, ‘V/H/S’ is overlong and too easily defined by what doesn’t work rather than what does.
Sunday, December 08, 2013
How often do sequels breathlessly boast that they open “just minutes after the first film ended”? Tom Six’s ‘Human Centipede 2 (Full Sequence)’ opens with the last five minutes of its undistinguished but hugely controversial predecessor. Followed by the closing credits. In black-and-white. Pan back: a corpulent car park attendant by the name of Martin (Laurence R Harvey) is watching ‘Human Centipede (First Sequence)’ on a laptop while he should be, oh I don't know, tending his car park.
Turns out this isn’t first time Martin has watched ‘Human Centipede’. Dude’s a big fan of the movie. He’s made himself a ‘Human Centipede’ scrapbook and the idea of recreating the film - only with a centipede of 12 conjoined people - provides solace during the lonely evenings. Martin lives with his mum and some bad memories of his dad abusing him. His mum won’t accept the truth of what happens and insists on Martin seeing a shrink. The shrink’s explanation of Martin’s obsession with caterpillars is one of the film’s comedic highlights.
(Having difficulty reconciling ‘Human Centipede 2 (Full Sequence)’ with the phrase “comedic highlights”? You’ll just have to trust me on this.)
One day (i.e. pretty much as soon as the film starts) Martin’s obsession spills out into real life and he starts clonking motorists who use the car park over the head with an iron bar. These poor unfortunates find themselves in a disused warehouse, denuded, hog-tied and their mouths silenced with gaffer tape. For an overweight shortarse, Martin sure gets in the exercise, hauling them from the back of his van and into the warehouse. He stops occasionally to toke on an inhaler.
He’s an equal opportunity sicko, and his victims include men and women, party-goers and mothers, the famous and the pregnant. The pregnant woman gets side-lined fairly quickly, only to reappear for a late-in-the-day escape attempt which concludes with the sickest scene involving a newborn this side of ‘A Serbian Film’. But it’s the celebrity victim on whom Martin lavishes most time and attention. In a film that’s already meta to the nines, Six goes meta plus VAT by having Ashlynn Yennie, the actress who played one of the victims from the first film, playing herself and being lured to the warehouse by Martin under the impression she’s auditioning for a film.
There are moments in ‘Human Centipede 2 (Full Sequence)’ where something almost intelligent seems to be happening. The most common reading of the film is that it’s a response/accusation/attack on those who complained that the first ‘Human Centipede’ didn’t go far enough with the blood and the shit and the gore.
And there’s no denying that ‘Human Centipede 2 (Full Sequence)’ goes further in every way possible. Where Dr Heiter makes a centipede of three people having failed in an earlier experiment involving his pet dogs, Martin makes a centipede of ten people having failed to reach his target of twelve; where Dr Heiter has a lab and a panoply of sterilized medical equipment, Martin has a draughty warehouse and a staple gun …
… and where the infamous bowel movement scene in the first film is more suggestive in the first film, it’s sickeningly literal this time round. Remember how only the little girl in the red coat disturbed the black-and-white of ‘Schindler’s List’? Six breaks the palette version of the fourth wall by having one colour erupt from the monochrome of ‘Human Centipede 2 (Full Sequence)’. Guess which colour?
Six also swaps the milieu of Heiter’s lavish country residence and its sprawling grounds for the three utterly grimy locations that the majority of the sequel takes place in: the car park, the warehouse, and Martin’s mother’s flat. It’s as if he’s ramping up the squalor and claustrophobia in direct ratio to the increase in viscera. Ditto the surgery itself: you want more segments to your centipede, Six seems to be saying, then you’ve got to sit through a more excruciating sequence. I opined in my review last month of ‘Human Centipede’ that “Six pulls his punches with the surgery”. Not here, he doesn’t.
The entire sequence, from pre-op (anaesthesia administered with crowbar) to the procedure itself (staple gun), to post-op (anal rape of the person at the end of the centipede) clocks in at a little over ten minutes and feels like ‘Satantango’ run at half-speed. Oh, and that rape scene? Martin wraps his member in razor wire first, a corollary to an earlier moment where he has one off the wrist using a sheet of sandpaper.
It’s at such moments that the “Tom Six does something almost intelligent with the material” prognosis deteriorates irreversibly to “Tom Six is an emotionally retarded fuckwit”. Likewise Martin’s backstory. What could have been an exploration of how one who is abused becomes an abuser – an all-too-real scenario which should have challenged the gore hound as to their expectations and responses to both instalments – is actually effected in the shoddiest, grubbiest manner possible by dint of a single line of dialogue that I’m not going to sully these already besmirched pages with.
Still, the film has some definite high points, not least the decision to utilize black-and-white and a Ken-Loach-on-a-real-downer kind of aesthetic. It’s certainly a more visually memorable film than the first, and the performances are better. Harvey is outstanding in a wordless role, creating a character who is equally pathetic, monstrous, childlike and perverted. Whether the poor bastard ever gets another acting job after this – allegedly, his career thus far has centred around children’s television! – remains to be seen. Six, however, is getting reading to unleash ‘Human Centipede 3 (Final Sequence)’ upon the world. Apparently it’s set in an American prison and features a centipede made up of hundreds of people. It will be Six’s last centipede film. Allegedly.
Friday, December 06, 2013
So basically there are these two rich dudes, Master Lung (Tony Liu) and Master Tan (Kuan Tai Chen), in a small town in feudal Japan and for whatever reason there’s one hell of a pissing contest going on between them. Things come to a head when Lung and his wife (Ni Tien) – I don’t think she’s ever referred to as anything but “Lung’s wife” or “Mistress Yung” – attend a social given by Tan at which Tan announces Yen Chu (Linda Chu) as his new concubine. This pisses off Lung no end since Yen Chu is his favourite girl at the local brothel and he now considers her poisoned for accepted Tan’s favours. Quite why he feels the need to visit a whorehouse when his wife is a stone fox is something the script leaves unexplained.
The upshot is, Lung publicly insults Tan and promises to outdo him at the upcoming lantern festival. Which, in terms of mano-a-mano confrontation, is kind of like the Wild Bunch converging on General Mapache’s hacienda and informing him in no uncertain terms that his ass is theirs at the next tiddlywinks championship. Anyway, Lung decides he needs to up the ante with his lantern festival entry and goes to see drunken lantern maker Old Tsui (Ching Ho Wang). Turns out Old Tsui’s alcoholism is an impediment to lantern making and he’s subcontracting all orders to Chun Fang (Lieh Lo), a recluse who lives at a watermill on the edge of town. Curious as to why a master craftsman like Chun Fang should rely upon the shambolic Old Tsui as a frontman, Lung pays him a visit. It transpires Fang is an old adversary of Lung’s who still bears the scars Lung left on him and shuns the company of his fellow men as a result.
Chung Sun’s ‘Human Lanterns’ – a Shaw Brothers production – establishes all of this pretty quickly. Perhaps too quickly. Because you don’t need to be a student of martial arts films or a cineaste of any great acuity to guess how the narrative is going to play out, particularly when Mistress Lung, Yen Chu, and Tan’s younger sister Mei-Mei (Hsiu Chun Lin) fall victim to a kidnapper with a ghost mask and animal claws. With Lung and Tan increasingly at each other’s throats with each affront to one of their women folk, could it possibly be that someone else is playing the two sides off against the middle? No shit, Sherlock!
‘Human Lanterns’ has something of a reputation among trash fans that it doesn’t quite live up to. Not that it’s entirely a write-off, or even particularly bad. In fact, the production design is ravishing and the whole thing is shot beautifully. At its best, the lighting and camerawork have a touch of ‘Suspiria’. Plus, there’s some fun to be had with the ineffectual plodding of the district’s square-jawed authority figure Sergeant Poon (Chien Sun). According to IMDb, the character is actually called Sergeant Pan, but the subtitles on the Celestial Pictures DVD I watched refer to him as Sergeant Poon throughout. Small things amuse small minds.
Essentially, ‘Human Lanterns’ is an attempt to fuse horror iconography with the ‘wuxia’ genre. Meaning “martial hero”, wuxia tales are historically-set and generally take a classless martial artist as their protagonist; this individual is generally bound by a strict code of honour, serves no master, and fights to redress injustice or uphold virtue. The above four paragraphs might leave you scratching your head as to whom the ‘wuxia’ is in ‘Human Lanterns’. You’re not alone, dear reader. Except for one surviving character’s last reel pledge to stop being such a self-interested douchebag (I’m paraphrasing here), no-one in ‘Human Lanterns’ demonstrates any of the noble intention or integrity usually found in wuxia.
So how does it work as a horror film? Erm, not that impressively to be honest. The ghost-animal-kidnapper-fiend is quite obviously a human antagonist in disguise from the outset. Moreover, their (easily guessable) identity is revealed very early on. That said, our villain does pursue his hidden agenda (or maybe not so hidden: a very literal case, here, of the clue being in the title) in a basement lair equipped with all manner of bubbling cauldrons and study post to which he ties his victims. Subject of which, the women in peril stuff plays out more like ‘House of Wax’ than ‘Rope and Skin’.
Ultimately, though, what ‘Human Lanterns’ stands or falls on is what any Shaw Brothers production stands or falls on: the fight scenes. And they’re pretty damn good. A stand-out is Lung’s battle with Tan’s private army, which is choreographed like a fan-dance: strangely elegant, almost camp, slightly sardonic. Various characters’ battles with the ghost-animal-kidnapper-fiend also have a touch of dark comedy, particularly in the mocking, slightly shambolic but almost always superior skillsmanship the fiend displays.
Sure, it’s predictable, often corny and I’m completely at a loss to understand its cult reputation, but ‘Human Lanterns’ is fast-paced and entertaining; an hour and a half of good unclean fun.
Monday, December 02, 2013
Real life has a habit of getting in the way at chez Agitation. I've been kept busy with book reviews for Nottingham's inimitable culture magazine LeftLion, a couple of articles for their website, and finalizing my entry for the Cinnamon Press debut poetry collection competition.
Oh, and I might have gone down the pub as well.
But fear not, the Winter of Discontent hasn't been forgotten. I have some unpleasant fare lined up for December. So if you're sick of Christmas songs, sparkly lights, puke-making festive adverts and people dressed in reindeer onesies, stay tuned. The diametric opposite of festive will be sliming its foetid way across these pages.
In the meantime, and in the usual Agitation fashion of posting cheesecake shots when actual content is lacking, it's Lucy Liu's 45th birthday and I can't think of many actresses who manage to combine such elegance and beauty and still vibe don't-spill-my-pint so devastatingly.
Tuesday, November 26, 2013
The one thing Ben Wheatley's 'Kill List' does extremely well is to demythologise the figure of the hitman. The existential cool of Alain Delon in 'Le Samorai', the quasi-mysticism of Jean Reno in 'Leon', are here replaced with a couple of ex-soldier, ex-private-security types named Jay (Neil Maskell) and Gal (Michael Smiley). Both live in blandly anonymous English suburbs. Both, when they're not killing people (and as the film opens it's been eight months since their last job), live relatively mundane lives. Jay and his Swedish wife Shel (MyAnna Buring) bicker and trade recriminations as the money runs out, seemingly staying together for no other reason than their seven-year old son. Gal drinks a lot and chases women. His latest squeeze is Fiona (stand-up comedian Emma Fryer - badly miscast), who works in Human Resources and seems to enjoy the downsizing a little too much. Fiona's depersonalised language in a dinner party scene that plays out with all the tensions, resentments and acrimony of a Mike Leigh film but without Leigh's trademark observational humour to leaven it, is just one of several instances of heavy foreshadowing.
Wheatley also ladles on symbolism: an arching rainbow as Jay and Gal meet their mysterious client for a new job; Jay's blood on a sheet of parchment; dead rabbits; a whole textbook of Arthurian imagery sneakily incorporated into a seemingly realistic aesthetic of motorways, chain hotels, identikit suburban houses. Britain as homogenous and ugly. It's therefore genuinely startling, then, when the last act erupts in a phantasmagoria of 'Wicker Man'-style paganism. Not that the shift from crime thriller to horror movie is as swervingly discordant as, say, 'From Dusk Till Dawn'. A pagan symbol marking out one of the characters for ... well, something ... means the film plays its hand fairly early on, and the smiling acceptance of several of Jay and Gal's targets is as good an indication as anything else that something very different from the archetypal hitman thriller is going on here.
Ah, but there's the rub. Getting into even a moderately in-depth dialogue about 'Kill List' involves flinging out spoilers left, right and centre. Although you could argue that they're not necessarily spoilers since Wheatley doesn't so much tie all of the film's implications, insinuations and semi-revelations together as leave everything as open-to-interpretation as possible. Also, a lot of my thoughts on the film over the last 24 hours have been, not shaped but certainly influenced, by online discussion threads. So I'm at a crossroads: I don't want to (a) spoil a couple of jaw-droppingly brilliant didn't-see-that-coming moments, or (b) rigorously debate an interpretation that I didn't arrive at myself.
Here, then, are some spoiler-friendly thoughts on the film. As a commentary on Britain as corrupt, riddled with things that are hidden, and ruled by degenerates, it makes its point in brutal and unflinching fashion. Wheatley films violence in a way that's reminiscent of early Scorsese: a sudden eruption from the fabric of the film that recedes just as suddenly. The violence is resolutely scoured of anything that might be misconstrued as glamorous or iconic, be it Jay and Gal emotionlessly lining a victim's office with plastic sheeting prior to shooting him in the head, or a bit of business with a hammer when Jay discovers a mark is a child-pornographer and opts for a less-professional-than-usual approach to the job. It's almost - almost - a moral film.
As I mentioned earlier, there's an interpretation that many of the film's commentators have settled on - let's just say that, conceptually, it suggests that 'Kill List' has more affinity with 'The Omen' than 'The Wicker Man' - and which accounts for much of the symbolism but still doesn't quite hold water. That Wheatley chose to jettison a more traditional narrative approach in favour of something more organic sometimes works against the film - particularly since, as genres, crime and horror tend to be very story-driven. Likewise, Wheatley's po-faced direction is occasionally at odds with the script's deviations into black humour. Played more as a dark comedy, 'Kill List' might have been clearer in its intent and its broadsides more emphatic. There's a splendid scene where, posing as travelling salesmen, Jay and Gal find themselves sharing an otherwise empty hotel dining room with a small group of born again Christians. Jay's slow-burn reaction gives the script's clearest exposition of his mindset, as well as paying off in a way that's both edgy and genuinely funny. Wheatley and his cast find a perfect register and I can't help but speculate how wonderful 'Kill List' would have been had it struck this balance through the majority of its running time.
Thursday, November 21, 2013
Remember that “don’t mention the z-word” gag in ‘Shaun of the Dead’, a riposte to Danny Boyle’s preciousness in insisting that ’28 Days Later’ wasn’t a zombie film? At its most inspired, Alejandro Brugues’s ‘Juan of the Dead’ plays out as a politically-minded exposition of this concept – one, moreover, that you don’t necessarily need a thorough grounding in Cuban history to appreciate. Nothing here gets lost in translation.
Off the coast of Havana, middle-aged ne’er-do-well Juan (Alexis Diaz de Vilegas) and his equally irresponsible best bud Lazaro (Jorge Molina) encounter a corpse while out fishing. When it unexpectedly comes to life and lunges at them, Lazaro shoots it with a harpoon gun. The friends decide this is the kind of business best left unreported to the authorities and hasten back to shore, fishless, where Juan resumes his twin hobbies of drinking and womanising, and Lazaro clumsily tries to bond with his grown-up son California (Andros Perugorria). Neither suspect that they’ve witnessed the start of a zombie apocalypse. Then an aged neighbour dies … only to return moments later, suddenly ambulatory after years of infirmity and with a taste for human flesh. Again, Juan and Lazaro fail to understand, as they desperately fend him off, what the deal is. Vampirism? Cloves of garlic rammed in the living corpse’s mouth have no effect. Possession? They attempt an exorcism. (Contextual parenthesis: I watched ‘Juan of the Dead’ after a spectacularly shitty day and in a mood of abject grumpiness; during this sequence, I found myself laughing so hard I had to pause the DVD to wipe away the tears.) Later still, the streets of Havana flooded with similar undead shufflers, Juan and Lazaro watch a news report: there have been acts of unsocial behaviour, the bespectacled and humourless anchor announces, perpetrated by dissidents in the pay of the American government.
The word “zombie” is used once in ‘Juan of the Dead’. By an American. No-one speaks English. The explanation is lost on them. The opportunity, however, isn’t. You know how in most zombie films, the narrative pretty much channels itself towards an inevitable mismatched-group-of-survivors holed up in a claustrophically intense setting while the zombies effectively besiege them scenario? ‘Juan of the Dead’ laughs at that concept and gleefully romps all over Havana as its anti-heroes set up a business disposing of “dissidents”. Juan’s sales pitch, each time he answers the phone, is “Juan of the dead, we kill your relatives, how can I help you?”, a line that gets funnier the more it’s repeated, not least because de Vilegas is clearly struggling to keep a straight face each time he delivers it.
Joining in the fun are China (Jazz Vila), a drag queen with a kick-ass attitude and a killer pair of heels; El Primo (Eliecer Ramirez) a built-like-a-brick-shithouse bodybuilder who faints at the merest hint of blood; and Camila (Andrea Duro), Juan’s teenage daughter who morphs, with appealing rapidity, from clean-cut girl-next-door to Lara Croft wannabe, all cut-off jeans and a handy technique with a ball-peen hammer.
Together, they lurch from entrepreneurism to misadventure, from broad comedy to horrifying … uh, well, no. Not actually. Although ‘Juan of the Dead’ turns in a couple of relatively effective suspense scenes, any trade in grue or gore is played entirely for laughs. As a result, even though some of Juan’s band of merry “dissident”-slayers buy it, Brugues struggles to imply that there are any real stakes involved.
But that’s just nit-picking when the comedy is so effective. As a political satire, it works well. As as a comedy of the absurd, it works beautifully (there’s a fight scene staged as a tango that is just priceless). As a full-tilt, exuberant, utterly unapologetic belly flop into every about a specific genre that the film-makers so evidently love, it knocks the ball right out of the park. Indeed, with its deliberately cheesy special effects (a vehicle impacting into a harbour is strictly die-case-model-thrown-in-a-bathtub stuff), casually laconic protagonist and knowing upending of genre tropes, it’s as pure a B-movie love letter as ‘From Dusk Till Dawn’ or ‘Planet Terror’, and a lot funnier than either.
Tuesday, November 19, 2013
The first three paragraphs of this review are pure supposition, and The Agitation of the Mind accepts no responsibility for having to tell lawyers to Foxtrot Oscar.
The scene: the tersely named Tom Six (who sounds like he ought to be a boy superhero rather than a director with an unhealthy track record in button-pushing) is talking to a potential backer about this little project he wants to make. A horror film.
“Okay, so, it’s called ‘Human Centipede’ and it’s about a mad scientist—” (the potential backer, let’s call him Fred so that I don’t have to keep typing potential backer, nods and smiles: mad scientists, always a crowd pleaser) “—who kidnaps these two beautiful American girls who are travelling through Europe—” (Fred nods and smiles: beautiful girls, always a crowd pleaser; Americans, good for the wider market) “—and uses them in a, ah, how shall we say, Fred, a medical experiment. Can I get you another drink?” (Fred nods and offers his glass, but he seems a little dubious now. Medical experiments? This might be a box office turn-off.) “Fred, no worries, ja? This is experiment is, ah, kind of like in the well-received French film ‘Martyrs’. Controversial, sure – disturbing, sure – but there is a social point to the film, as well as being tense and exciting and, here’s the thing, cheap to make.” (Fred, glass refreshed, sips and nods and asks a question about the title.) “Ah, but there is the genius of the film. The title conjures all sorts of horrible images. The poster will conjure more horrible images. And the film itself, Fred … well, nobody can complain they were sickened or disgusted or they didn’t know what they were getting into. The title will build the buzz, generated the word of mouth, before the film’s even been released. Kind of like what happened with the hugely profitable American film ‘Snakes on a Plane’. This film will have a legion of fanboys while we’re still shooting. Did I mention how cheap it will be to make?”
Waiting for the cheque to clear and having found a cast crazy enough to sign on the dotted line, the Six-meister starts giving some thought to his magnum opus’s central conceit – its main selling point, its self-powering controversy-generator: mad scientist stitches three people together anus-to-mouth to create a … well, the clue’s in the title. There’s a funky idea he’s kicking about that has to do with nutcase scientist bloke trying to train the centipede. He’s got a finale mind involving a couple of cops and some shooting. All of a sudden it dawns on him: he needs an extra hour’s worth of material to drag this mo’fo’ to the hour and a half mark. He doesn’t think that Fred and the other backers are going to be too happy about ponying up for a 30 minute short …
Which is my best guess as to how the world was gifted with Tom Six’s
It’s impossible to approach ‘The Human Centipede’ and not know what fate lies in store for Lindsay and Jenny. Even when it was first released, the publicity machine had built up enough steam that everyone knew about the bumhole/cakehole surgery business. Hence the next twenty minutes or so, which detail the capture of another subject, Japanese tourist Katsuro (Akihiro Kitamura), and Lindsay’s attempts to escape, her flight hampered by a drugged and somnolent Jenny, are leached of tension since it’s a foregone conclusion that said attempts will fail.
Six then proceeds to pull his punches with the surgery, and even the inevitable scenes of Katsuro, Lindsay and Jenny stitched together in an unpleasantly intimate manner aren’t actually as queasy as you’d think. For all that Heiter makes a big deal about the three of them sharing one digestive system, the horrible implications of this are more suggested than shown. Granted, the scene in question is definitely one to fast forward through if you’re eating, but it’s nothing compared to the “circle of shit” sequence in ‘Salo, or The 120 Days of Sodom’, or Divine’s caprophagous moment of infamy in ‘Pink Flamingos’.
This isn’t to say that ‘The Human Centipede’ is a total waste of potential: Lindsay stumbling on a memorial in Heiter’s garden to “mein leibe 3-hund” is an effective little scene; Heiter’s prissily self-important diction as he gives a medical lecture to his trio of screaming subjects is funnier than it has any right to be; and the nastily deliberate final shot gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “stuck in the middle”. But such moments are offset by the horrible stereotyping of Katsuro, the last act introduction of a pair of detectives so ploddingly inept that your average giallo copper looks like Inspector Morse by comparison, and the total lack of any form of emotional investment in the characters or the story. Put simply, ‘The Human Centipede (First Sequence)’ exists purely to present the hardcore horror fan with a, well, human centipede. How it gets there is boilerplate, the characters it uses are ciphers and for all its provocation the end result struggles to keep its head above the undertow of banality.
The sequel, however … well, that’s another story.